© 2010 Scott Huler
If modern humans have retained a penchant for magical thinking, little wonder. Our homes accomplish marvels seemingly by the force of will. We want light, we flip a switch. Thirsty? We turn a knob. Bored? Open a laptop, and hey presto – there’s the complete series of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation! All of civilization is literally at our finger tips, but it’s not magic – it’s a mindboggling array of wires, pipes, routers, and other infrastructure, put to work by a multitude of engineers. On the Grid opens the door on the miracle that is the 20th century home. Through it, Huler follows pipes, wires, and garbage men to find out where they go, investigating the operations of water supply, sewage, road construction, traffic control, electricity, waste management, telecommunications, and – for good measure – bus stops and train stations.
The adventure is both social and technical; while at the beginning he literally stalks a recycling truck and pokes along in sewers, nearly being run over by a backhoe at one point, most of his information is gleaned from guided tours by a variety of engineers. Getting inside a nuclear plant, let alone getting a handle on their operation, would be difficult without a guide! By and large the men consulted are enthusiastic about talking about their work, and as Huler learns the ins and outs of more systems, he begins to see commonalities. Not only do some systems rely on the same infrastructure – power, cable, and telephone all being mounted on a shared utility pole – but the ‘hub and spokes’ model of distribution is commonplace. This is a wonderfully varied book, in part because of Foley’s respectable ambition. His documentation, however, mixes science, history, engineering, and a little politics. He ends with a salute to all of the engineers whose constant vigilance and labor keep the wires buzzing, the pipes open, and the pavement smooth, and a warning to readers not to undervalue infrastructure when it comes to thinking about taxes and leadership. If, like me, you have a fascinating for knowing how something as complex as a city – or even an ordinary house – operate from day to day, Huler’s sweep offers a beginning spot, and draws on numerous histories that go into more detail.
- Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization (W. Hodding Carter IV)*
- The Grid: A Journey through the Heart of Our Electrified World (Phillip Schewe)
- Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, Elizabeth Royte
- Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, Susan Strasser*
- Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, Tom Vanderbilt*
- Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Keay*
- Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail, Stephen Goddard*
- Picking Up: On the Streets with the Sanitation Workers of NYC, Robin Nagle
- Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, Charles Marohn
* Included in Huler’s bibliography